Tight Socks and Feminist Freedom
"I was switching channels on the radio looking for music when I hit National Public Radio," a friend of mine said the other day. "There was this woman being interviewed and she had this eerie, mellifluous voice. I kept listening. And then she started playing the piano. She was great! At the end, I found out it was Tori Amos. Could I borrow her album from you?"
Me (left) with Tori Amos (right)
It was a similar reaction that led me to interview an unknown redheaded pianist three years ago on the eve of the release of her first solo album; equally intrigued were the half million-plus American music fans who bought Little Earthquakes. Banking on that debut sucess, Tori Amos' new album Under the Pink shipped an initial one million copies, with sales already surpassing Earthquakes' gold mark. It's a far cry from Amos' first recorded effort with the ill-fated mid-'80s metal band Y Kant Tori Read (the album stiffed), but the resilient Amos shrugs it off with a laugh: "You should see the album cover-for my hairspray if nothing else."
Three years in the spotlight hasn't dulled the attitudes or tongue of the outspoken singer, a former child prodigy who was thrown out of a music conservatory for playing rock'n'roll before most kids have graduated grade school. That experience has, perhaps, taught Amos the importance of pacing herself.
"I'm glad that the exposure isn't all because of one album," she admits, her voice sounding raw but still bright after a day of press interviews. "There is a sense that the sophmore record can really trip you up. There are a lot of people whose second record doesn't get heard, and I was aware of that. So I am breathing a little sigh of relief, to be totally honest, and I can go on with it now. I don't have to worry about the sophmore jinx anymore. I've passed that, so I've got a career!"
This didn't appear to be the case after Y Kant Tori Read failed; Amos found herself playing Holiday Inn lounges for cash. But when her record company asked her to give it another go, she wrote an albums worth of piano-based, soul-baring songs and relocated to England as part of her deliberate career reinvention. She made her first dent as a solo artist in the UK before catching on back here in the States.
But even after Little Earthquakes went gold, a question remained: could an earthy girl and her piano be anything more than a passing fad, a one-album wonder? Could Amos keep up the intensity she established in releasing "Crucify" (which took on the heady subject of Christian guilt) as one of her first singles, not to mention the inclusion of a heart-wrenching a capella exorcism of rape ("Me and a Gun"), a haunting ode to lost innocence ("Winter"), and a bittersweet rediscovery of voice in the face of adultrous betrayal ("Silent All These Years")? All on a debut album?
"After that, I said to myself it is important that I make a work that isn't Little Earthquakes, but [still] challenges me," Amos recounts. "So I made Under the Pink. I wanted to make an impressionistic painting, not do another diary. I really made a very conscious choice to do a different style writing-wise."
The result is a rich album with more stylistic stretches than Little Earthquakes. Under the Pink features Amos' current chart-climbing effervescent single "Cornflake Girl," a nine-minute piano suite ("Yes Anastasia"), a catty tale of dueling waitresses ("The Waitress"), a quietly humorous paean to masturbation in the face of religious oppression ("Icicle"), and her most popular single to date, the infectious, rhythm-driven "God."
"God is our biggest mythology," Amos says of her musical pokes at mankind's relationship with the supreme one. "Christianity has been the biggest history in the West, and it permeates everything, even advertising. There are certain things that will or won't be said. I couldn't say 'cum' on David Letterman the other night because of the advertisers. I had to sing 'Because you make me calm, that doesn't make you Jesus' [a line from "Precious Things."]"
Did Amos' father, a Methodist minister, appreciate the omission? "No, my father likes it when I shake things up."
Does she care that some people mistake her digs at religious oppression as atheistic attacks at God?
"If you're a lamebrain, then you're a lamebrain," she laughs. "I can't help that. I'll tell you something that I'm very aware of: my work doesn't relate to the masses. My work is really for the elite. And when I say elite, I mean the mental elite." She pauses a moment to consider. "I'm sorry, I wish it weren't true. But if you don't think, and you have no wit, and you have so many hangups that you can't look beyond your cup of coffee, then you're never going to understand what I'm really saying. Because you know what? You're going to shut down and close off before you hear me. If I'm threatening you, you're going to see it the way you need to see it so you can dismiss me."
As Amos sees it, when she's singing "God, sometimes you just don't come through/Do you need a woman to look after you?," she's just nudging the mighty one in the ribs.
"Hey, God's my boyfriend. Don't you think He totally loves that? Come on — the patriarchy's doing a terribly rotten job, and I don't know anyone else who's willing to cut God up a cantaloupe and say, 'Hey, sit down, put your feet up, you need some advice.' You have to have a bit of confidence to do that. You have to stop a minute and say 'I'm not buying this trip that humans aren't worthy of talking to the gods.'
"What Jesus was really saying was 'It is within you.' There are things that I would disagree with Jesus about — and I feel really good about that. That's how it should be. Respect Him to go His way and I'll do my thing. I mean, if you want to go and sit out in the desert for 40 days, knock yourself out. But I'm going to go and get some pizza. And I'm not less of a person because of it. I'll help old ladies across the street, too."
This freedom from ideological chains is the key to her work, Amos says.
"There is a level where humans have been taught that they are so unworthy and incapable. What I try to inspire in my work is that we are capable. That energy force is within, and we're all connected to it. I believe completely in the great spirit. I'm not a part of institutionalized religion because it's a controlling force that just keeps you powerless, and it keeps you away from what's really going on. You're just plasma walking around making a lot of noise."
If some "lamebrains" miss Amos' lyrical calls to personal freedom, they can't ignore her moves on stage. Alone with her audience and her baby grand, Amos sinuously moves against her instrument as she plays, at times glancing out heavy-lidded to her fans as if she were working a men's club.
"There's usually some person who walks out of my show dragging a kid every night because it dawns on them what I am," she boasts. "It dawns on them that this nice, redhead lady who plays the piano is challenging traditional thought — and they don't want their daughter to be challenged."
"Guys aren't dragged out of the theatre — it's the 15-year-old girl. I'm like, 'Mom, if you drag that 15-year-old girl out of the theatre, guess what? She's going to listen to me more than she ever did. Get smart. Sit there and choke on the popcorn for an hour.' If my father said to me 'You're not going to see him again,' I was there before midnight."
With the same fervor of a midnight rendezvous with a forbidden date, Amos inspires fiercely devoted fans. They collect her singles from all over the world (at least a dozen non-album tracks were released on domestic and imported singles from Little Earthquakes alone) as well as bootleg concert CDs, which often include rare, live cover versions of other artists' songs.
"There are 23 bootlegs now," Amos says ruefully. "Robert Plant came home with a bootleg video and said 'Tori, you've made it. You're nothing until you've been bootlegged.' So I've started to feel better about it. But they're such poor quality that I'm like, 'Why don't they buy the English import that has seven or eight tracks live that are recorded great?"
There are already several non-album tracks out as B-sides to Under The Pink, which Amos said was done in direct response to her fans.
"In England, every time you release a single you have an opportunity to put down songs you've never recorded. In the beginning, it was like, 'Oh, wow, great." Now it's like I have to do it because I've been known for that. If I don't put on a B-side people write me really nasty letters. Really. My hardcore fans, their favorite stuff is my B-sides. The big faves are "Here In My Head" and "Upside Down."
With any luck, a live recording — bootleg or B-side — will surface of a concert Amos did this spring in Dublin, Ireland after learning of Kurt Cobain's death. Though Amos never met Cobain, her B-side cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was partially responsible for her early acceptance on alternative radio.
"I did a tribute to Kurt Cobain with 'Teen Spirit' and 'American Pie' this night in Dublin because 'American Pie' is what I heard over and over in my head the night he killed himself. I played it to 2,500 kids: it started like a whisper, and then in perfect pitch, in perfect rhythm, very softly, they all sang 'American Pie' with me. None of us in the crew had ever experienced anything like it."
You might not expect this girl and her piano — a duo often compared to the ethereal Kate Bush — to eulogize the leader of the Seattle grunge movement. But Amos views Cobain's death as a terrible loss.
"I just felt like I knew him. I miss him as a musician. It's just painful when you see someone who had so much to give — especially musically — gone. We've lost quite a significant voice for this generation."
Regardless of the allure and collectability of Amos' numerous B-sides, the best material from the Under the Pink recording sessions appears on the album itself, like the beautifully moody "Baker, Baker," which Amos describes as "The second part to 'Me And A Gun.' Next page."
Likewise, the deceptively bouyant "The Wrong Band" takes its jump-off from a particular seedy true-life incident. "There was this hooker in D.C. that I knew, and she'd been having a fling with one of the governors," Amos explains. "She got in too deep and thought her life was threatened, so she fled to Japan where she was protected by one of the hierarchy over there. I never heard from her again. It just all came back to me when the Heidi Fleiss thing hit and I started thinking about what that world is about. People don't think of hookers as people, but I quite like them. I find their story really interesting, and when people start judging [them], they should just shut up because they have no idea what it's like to be on the other side."
Amos submits that at one time, prostitution was a respected profession. "It was better to be a hooker than to be somebody's wife and get the shit kicked out of you all the time. As a wife you had no rights. At least as a mistress or a prostitute — in the old days — you could do all right. You could tell them when to put on their boxers and go."
After singing about rape, religion, and sex on her first album, and catfights, religion, and sex on her second, what will she tackle next time around?
"On Little Earthquakes I dealt with the son, and on Under the Pink I dealt with the father so ... I've handled the men — I'm gonna go deal with the women. Maybe some Mary Magdalene energy. But I really don't know what the next work means until I've written it. Whatever I do, it has to be challenging, because the one thing I always loved about The Beatles is that they were constantly changing and exploring, and no record was like the last one. That fascinated me."
Amos says she's touring until the end of this year, and will take 1995 off to write. "It will take me a year to come up with something nifty," she muses. "I've got to be a real clever little beaver this time. I just want to challenge myself. I'd like to be able to look at it and go 'This blows my socks off.' I think if I could say that, I would be quite satisfied. I don't know if I can blow my socks off. That's my worry. I've got some pretty thick, tight socks on. But we'll see.
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